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Bill Manhire’s Poetry Masterclass: Convened By Chris Price

Writers and Readers 2012
Bill Manhire’s Poetry Masterclass: Convened By Chris Price

Reviewed by Pip Adam

I email my Jenny Erpenbeck post at about eight o’clock on Monday night. Then at three am I wake up – I forgot to spell check it. Now Helen, our editor, will know I don’t know how to spell ‘allegory’ and will think I think ‘Holocaust’ has two l’s. I get up and with a click of an icon all the things that made me look stupid and un-savy are gone. Tada! It’s so easy these days to make things look finished, done and kind of casually done, like they came out that way. The word processor has changed writing – or maybe re-writing. We don’t often share our common mistakes, our always can’ts or our works in progress. That’s why this session is so appealing. Not only would the three poets share unpublished work (the only writers I’ve seen do this at Writers and Readers Week so far) but they would offer it up for criticism, in front of 200 people none of whom were showing any of their work in return (this always seems like part of the contract in a workshop, ‘You show me yours, I’ll show you mine’). And in a move I see as equally courageous Bill Manhire would offer his feedback to the poems again, in front of people and then invite the audience to also have their say. It has something of the competitive cooking about, or maybe some kind of literary X-Factor.

There are plenty of Modern Letters alumni in the queue outside the session (there’s a queue for the session, it’s very popular). I have several conversations about why we’ve come and why some people feel a bit odd about being here. Voyeurism comes up but more than one person says how they really want to see the mechanics of it from a distance. When you’re in the workshop, it’s often hard to see what’s going on; you’re so ‘in the workshop’. For me, there’s the added benefit of reading Alistair Galbraith’s work and seeing him speak and read. I find his musical work really inspiring, I can’t wait to read his poetry.

When we arrive in the theatre there are copies of the poems on our seats: Alistair Galbraith’s ‘Gliding’, Vida Zelenka’s ‘This is another church’, and Jo Morris’ ‘Accompanying Person (Anaesthetic Conference, Wellington Town Hall)’.The poems were chosen from 250 which were submitted for the event. Manhire explains that it was hard business to choose. There was a lot of good stuff, he smiles, there was also a lot of dodgy stuff. He says, just in case they do this again, he should let everyone know what he hates. He hates those poems that are centred, the ones that look a bit like Xmas trees – yeah, those ones, don’t do that. He said that possibly the poems he chose weren’t the best three poems but the most interesting ones, for a range of different reasons. What follows seems to me like gold, he explains his approach to offering feedback to a poem and it seems it will work with any type of writing. He says, he tries to find the voice of the piece and offer advice on how that voice might be brought out or enhanced in the piece. I remember Damien Wilkins telling our MA class once that maybe our job in workshop is to recognise what a piece wants to be and to help it be the best version of that possible.

Chris Price is convening the session and she explains the format: The poet will read the poem, Manhire will offer his feedback, then the other two poets, then the audience will be given a chance to have their say, then the poet will have a chance to respond. She says every poem has exactly 15 minutes and she’ll be acting as timekeeper – she does a great job throughout the session. The workshop begins with Alistair Galbraith’s ‘Gliding’. I wasn’t sure how much of the feedback to put in this post, some of it may not make sense without the poem in front of you but I think it’s also interesting to see how people talk about poetry, so here goes.

Manhire says he loved hearing Galbraith read the poem. He said when it arrived it had double-line spaces and he feels like Galbraith’s reading gave it back some of this space. He says it’s interesting that each line starts with a capital letter, that this makes him imagine the poem is older than it actually is. He talks about the long lines, the way they swoop from left to right, each line seems like a single breath. He says it’s interesting that the poem talks a lot about seeing but it’s not terrifically visual. He reminds us of Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, he says this poem has the ‘apparition of these faces in a crowd’ but not the ‘petals on a wet black bough’. There is very little concrete visualisation. Manhire then starts to look at individual lines. There are a couple of places where he ‘choked for the meaning’ where the poem loses its ecstatic movement and starts instead to explain. There is a line which is awkward musically and in its meaning. Manhire says he could have forgiven the confusion of meaning if it had been sufficiently musical. He notes that it seems that where he was the most caught up in the poem is the exact place the poem throws him out. He also has a problem with the last three lines, they feel like a coda, like they come from outside of the experience of the poem. He simultaneously wants them there and doesn’t want them there. Then he says something I’ve heard heaps in workshop – I don’t know how to fix it though. I love this about workshops, it gives me such faith that the writer is doing something which only they can do. As a reader I can describe my experience of reading the work, but usually I have no idea how to fix what I see as problematic.

Jo Morris is next, she says she noticed that Galbraith read punctuation that wasn’t there and she wonders if the line breaks are acting as punctuation. She wonders if it would be worth putting some of the punctuation in. Vida Zelenka agrees about the end and also is not sure how to fix it.

Price asks Galbraith if he has any response and he begins by saying the reason each line starts with a capital letter is because he has an old computer, and it just does that. He agrees with a lot of what the others have said and thanks them. His explanation of the poem is beautiful, he says it is about one of those days that only come once or twice a year when the air is full of downy seed and you see, that although the weather report says there’s a North Easterly or a North Westerly there is never just one movement in wind. He explains that the poem was originally written 15 years ago and how it is hard to get past certain things when you begin to work again on something that old. I’ve sometimes wondered about whether a workshop is the best way to teach or work on poetry but watching Galbraith, in fact all of the poets, kind of restores my faith – it is a wonderful way to capture a reader’s experience and it really seems to make us better readers, of other’s work first but then of our own.

Price opens discussion up to the audience. Ever since I heard about this session, this is where I thought it would fall down. I couldn’t imagine anyone being willing to offer feedback but heaps of hands go up. There are some great comments, one woman talks about how she entered the poem through Galbraith’s biography which appears before it and she was instantly looking at the musicality of it. She talks about how the poem has ‘ornate sounds’ and ‘plain sounds’ and she wonders if Galbraith could mine that further. He says, thanks for that feedback, often musicality hijacks meaning and other features of the poem, so it is good to hear there is room for him to add more of that to the poem. Manhire responds to the discussion about balance of musicality and meaning by quoting Paul Valery, ‘A poem is a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.’

Zelenka’s poem ‘This is another church’ is next. Manhire begins by saying the poem feels pretty finished. He says how he likes the way it teases him and throws him off balance. He points out the way the couplets are tidy and make your eye move forward along almost railway lines. The line length is pretty uniform, there’s no punctuation, no capital letters except the first but despite all this the reader has to work quite hard because a lot of the guidance systems are not there. He points out the second line where ‘god’ is not capitalised and referred to as ‘she’. He says this doesn’t trouble us but it does arrest our reading. Then he moves to the ‘smooth elbows sharp legs’ – it’s as if the adjectives had become attached to the wrong nouns. So the poem looks tidy but it throws us off balance in small ways. He says, he can solve it in a meaning sense but that doesn’t seem to be what the poem is really about, what it seems to be about is the play between a sense of certainty and the surprising.

Galbraith talks about the energy of the piece and how this conjures up images and feelings of freedom to him. An audience member (okay, it’s Harry Ricketts) says the last line ‘I am Pocahontas, I deliver mail’ promises mythic scale and then is undercut in a pleasing way.

Then it is Zelenka’s turn to respond. She says she doesn’t really want to disappoint everyone with the meaning. She wrote it about playing soccer and it really is about freedom and about the sudden feeling of being with other people. As for Pocahontas – she had in mind the Disney Pocahontas and the line about delivering the mail is a mistake, she thought Pocahontas delivered mail but she didn’t. I thought this was so great. That the poem could mean one thing to the writer and then another to the reader. That it could have its genesis in a small event but the process of putting that event to language and rhythm had made it something different.

Jo Morris reads her poem ‘ Accompanying Person (Anaesthetic Conference, Wellington Town Hall)’. Manhire says he thinks the poem has a great title and wonderful idea behind it. The idea of the accompanying person. His main criticism is that he doesn’t feel it has quite found its voice yet. He loves the idea of the narrator witnessing a conversation that she can’t translate but the medical language which follows is so willfully anti-lyric. He says it stopped him in his tracks, worrying how to pronounce the words. He says it pushed him to the very edge of the poem and in the next line he was lost in more ordinary ways – working out who was doing what action. The poem doesn’t seem to know where it falls formally. The last stanza, for example, overplays its hand and at the same time is unsure of what that hand is. Then he says the thing I both love and hate hearing in workshop – I think you need to take a deep breath and start again. He follows this with a phrase he borrows from one of the previous audience members, If this were my poem – and again he follows it with gold – I would have a go at this poem in third person, turn the ‘I’ into a ‘she’, turn it all into prose rather than verse, and describe everything more flatly. He likes every detail that’s in the poem he just wonders about presenting those details as snapshots so there is room for the reader to draw meaning and emotion out for themselves. He is sure some people will disagree and jokes Morris is welcome to push him out of the chair if she wants. She doesn’t.

Zelenka says she likes the scientific language but she is also unsure of the last stanza. Galbraith says he likes the way the poem conjures up horror. How there is a horror in medicine which goes un-noticed by doctors.

Price opens the discussion up to the audience and an interesting thing happens, which I think I’ve seen happen in workshops I’ve been in. Almost universally, the audience members come to the defence of the poem. They really like this and they really get that. Price asks Manhire about his feedback and he says, he agrees with what everyone is saying, he doesn’t want what the poem notices to change, he just wants a more neutral presentation of these details so there is room for the reader to come back to the poem several times and add some of their own meaning and emotion.

Morris thanks everyone for their feedback. She thinks the poem is a bit too ideas-based and maybe there is too much going on in it. I really recognise the feeling of relief which I think I can see on her face. So often I have brought a piece of writing to workshop and had no idea why it wasn’t working and then it has opened up through other people’s reading. I haven’t necessarily agreed with everything everyone has said but I have understood the work in a different way, a way that enables me to return to it with fresh eyes and from a different angle.

Price finishes by quoting Lavinia Greenlaw, who said ‘the revising of the poem seems to be the writing of the poem’. Afterward, most people I bump into say things like, “That really worked well”. I think a lot of us weren’t quite sure how it would go but I think the format was great as were the participants.


  1. Craig Cliff, 15. March 2012, 14:08

    Great write up, Pip. I was gutted I couldn’t make it to this session but your summary is a good consolation!

  2. mary mccallum, 15. March 2012, 15:21

    What Craig says – I had to get home to a sick child. I love the idea of the session but was concerned, like you Pip, that it might not work. It sounds wonderful. I hope it was filmed…